5-Hour or Eagle Energy?, Mark 1:29-39; Isaiah 40:21-31

Someone once compared ministry to being in a tank of piranhas where nobody wants much of you, but everyone just wants a little piece of your time.  That is also a great metaphor for life.  Who are the piranhas in your life – kids, parents, boss, teachers, students, the IRS, Facebook friends, customers, clients, telemarketers, the church, charitable organizations, starving children in Somalia, spouse—all of the above?  Jesus had the piranha problem often.  Mark tells us in the very first chapter of his Gospel that Jesus is going around doing his thing – casting out demons, healing the sick, teaching and preaching, and one morning he needs a break from the demands of his life so much that he goes off before daybreak by himself to pray (Mark 1:35).  But his serenity break doesn’t last long.  The disciples track him down and try to lay a guilt trip on him.  “Everyone is searching for you,” they say.  Ever feel that way?

Sometimes we flee from the piranha tank to get away from it all at some popular vacation destination, only to realize when we get there that a million other tourists had the same idea.  Modern technology doesn’t help.  Being connected to the world 24/7 isn’t how our creator intended for us to be wired.  We grow faint and weary from information overload, from legitimate demands on our time, and from too many needs we want to meet and too little energy, time and money to go around.

Jesus “went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  That sentence speaks volumes to me about coping with modern day life stressors.  First, finding a deserted place is darn near impossible today.  Even at home we have televisions in every room and the omnipresent cell phone, iPod, iPad, or the communication device du jour constantly within easy reach.  If you don’t think you’re addicted, ask yourself how you feel when there’s no Wi-Fi close by or no bars on your phone.  Or, have you ever realized you’ve left home without your phone and feel naked without it?  Secondly, if Jesus needed time alone now and then, why would we ever delude ourselves into thinking that we don’t?

I love the interplay among the lectionary texts for February 5th even though I’m not sure how to resolve the tension between them.  In I Corinthians (9:16-23) Paul tells us he has made himself “a slave to all” and has “become all things to all people.”  If that doesn’t sound like a sure fire formula for burn out, what does?  By contrast when the disciples find Jesus and interrupt his prayer time with a plea for him to meet the needs of the teeming masses, Jesus answers, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mk. 1:38).  Jesus isn’t distracted from his primary mission and purpose by the demands or desires of others.  A more dramatic example of that focus occurs in Luke 9:60 where Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (See also Matt. 8:22).  Jesus clearly knows what his priorities are and how to say “no,” even to legitimate, heart-rending needs around him.  Remember that Jesus is not only the Messiah, but he is also fully-human like us and understands our limitations.

Competing commitments muddy human decision-making waters all the time.  If every choice of how to spend our time, money and energy was a no brainer between a good and bad option, no problem, we could all do it.  But it’s rarely that easy.  I wrote a short story for an English class way back in my undergraduate days at Ohio State.  The story was about a father who chose to spend little time with his family, but it wasn’t the common workaholic, materialistic-driven absentee dad version of that tale.  My variation on the theme was that this father was so busy donating his time to good causes at his church and in his community that he was hardly ever home when his children were awake and had little energy left over for any quality time with his spouse.  My English prof didn’t like the premise of the story.  He thought it would be more effective if the option between good and bad life choices was more clearly drawn.  40 years later, I still think choosing between two worthy causes is more common and much harder to do than opting for something that is obviously the more noble of two forks in the road.

Now the “so what” question.  What does this all mean for 21st century Christians caught on the treadmill of life that just keeps going faster and faster?  Where’s the emergency red button that stops the world so we can get off?   And if you think this is a new problem for our over-stimulated generation, Google “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.”  That’s the title of a musical and movie made in the early 1960’s about exactly what the title says and what Mark wrote about over 2000 years ago.

Interestingly enough, the problem is even older than that.  The Hebrew text (Isaiah 40) for this Sunday, written some 500 years before Jesus’ time, addresses the same problem.  “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted (Isa. 40:30).  So, let’s not feel special or put upon.  This is a human problem that transcends time, age, generations and cultures.  God knew from the beginning we were going to have problems with knowing when to take a day off and sets a clear example for us to follow by resting on the 7th day of creation (Gen. 2:2).  Honoring ourselves with Sabbath rest is so important it ranks in God’s Top Ten list, right up there with not killing, stealing, committing adultery, etc.

So why is this so hard?  We all know we need rest and re-creation time.  The problem is actually living it.  For far too much of human history we have wasted valuable time and energy arguing among ourselves about which day is the true Sabbath and what constitutes resting, instead of just doing it.  Please note that how we recharge our physical and spiritual batteries is different for different people.  I am an introvert, and I need quiet solitude to be refreshed and renewed.  Extroverts, on the other hand, find a loud party or a rock concert very energizing.  Whatever is restful and renewing for you – find time to do it on a regular basis.  You’re worth it.  God says so and Jesus shows us.

I love the way Isaiah puts it.  After that verse about even young people getting exhausted, Isaiah says, “but those who wait for the lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like Eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:31).  The secret is waiting for the Lord.  Waiting is not easy for our instant gratification culture.  We will spend good money we don’t have to upgrade from 3G to 4G, whatever that means, to save a few nanoseconds of download time.  We don’t wait well.  Waiting means surrendering control and none of us want to go there.  But I would suggest that we don’t really have a choice.  We can either surrender control to Microsoft or the Messiah, to piranhas or peace.  Instant gratification lasts an instant or two.  Eternal life endures forever.

Finally, like most of life, this is not really an either/or choice, but both/and.  The final verse of the text from Mark for this week tells us Jesus didn’t choose A or B.  “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues AND casting out demons” (1:39).  How could he do both?  First, he knew that proclaiming the Gospel by word and deed is one way of combating the evil demons that threaten humankind.  Secondly, Jesus knew how to say “no” to the demands of the world, take time to wait upon the Lord, and renew his strength so he could soar with the eagles.  May it be so for you and me as well.


Fish Tale and Forgiveness, Jonah 3:1-10

Last week’s text from I Samuel raised a tough question: are some sins beyond forgiveness?  I hadn’t looked ahead in the lectionary then but was pleased to find that the Hebrew text from Jonah for this week offers a great response to that question.

Ask most people what they know about Jonah, and you will get “Jonah and the whale” as their response.  It’s a familiar story kids learn about and sing about in Sunday School, but it is more than a big fish story (which is what the Hebrew says, not a “whale” per se).  I’m not a fisherman, but I’ve always been attracted to Jonah and even chose it as the text for the first sermon I ever preached, way back in 1969.  At the time my wife asked me why that text.  She said, “What does that story mean for us today?”  My response, “Don’t go swimming with big fish.”

Of course, it means much more than that if we take time to ask some basic questions, like what was Jonah doing in the water and why was he swallowed by the big fish?  It’s a very short story, only 3 pages, and it makes much more sense if read in its entirety. But here’s the abridged version:

  1.  God calls Jonah and tells him to go on a mission to Nineveh.
  2. Jonah doesn’t want to go and jumps on a ship headed for Tarshish (in the exact opposite direction) instead.
  3. God is not pleased and causes a storm at sea, and when the sailors learn that Jonah is the reason for God’s displeasure, they throw Jonah overboard.
  4. God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Not to punish him, by the way, but to save him and give him time to reconsider God’s offer.)
  5. After 3 days God has the fish spit Jonah out; and Jonah decides this time he’d better listen to God, heads for Nineveh and delivers God’s message.
  6. The people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning, repent of their sins, and are forgiven and saved from God’s judgment on them.
  7. Jonah pouts because he really wanted God to give the Ninevites hell, not mercy.

So there’s a lot more going on here than Jonah and the fish.  It’s a story about a refusal to say yes when God’s wishes are very plain.  Jonah’s call is not ambiguous as is sometimes the case. The message from God to Jonah couldn’t be more clear and direct: “Go at once to Nineveh” (1:1).    There is no failure to communicate here – just reluctance to obey.  And we all know how smart it is to say “no” to God; so why would Jonah even try?  To answer that question requires a little history lesson.  Nineveh was the capital of Babylon, a hated enemy of the Hebrew people.  Ironically, for our contemporary context, Nineveh sat about where modern day Baghdad is located today.  Given that context, we know what Jonah was being asked to do was take a warning to the people of Nineveh so they could be forgiven and spared from God’s wrath.

Jonah knew, as he says in 4:2, that Yahweh was a God of mercy and would forgive those hated enemies of his people.  Put yourself in Jonah’s place.  Fill in your own favorite enemies: liberals, conservatives, 9/11 terrorists, Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers, Muslims, Evangelicals, bitter athletic rivals, business competitors, lawyers, former spouses – whoever it is that you would like to be the very last people God would forgive.  That’s who Johan is being asked to save and why he is a reluctant prophet who dares to defy a direct order from God.  As the story unfolds we see it is one of repentance – Jonah repents of his obedience after God gives him a three-day time out in the smelly innards of a fish.  The people of Nineveh repent after they hear Jonah’s message from God.  And even God gets in on the act and repents of his judgment against the people of Nineveh.

Which brings us, finally, back to last week’s question about unforgiveable sin.  And the answer is “no.”  If God can forgive the enemies of his chosen people who destroyed Jerusalem and carried God’s people off into exile, what could be unforgiveable?

Jonah is a foreshadowing of the grace-filled Gospel of Jesus, which turns on its head the vengeful, don’t get mad, get even theology we often prefer in our Jonah-like assessment of who deserves forgiveness.  Jesus states that Gospel as clearly as God calls of Jonah.  “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  And, ‘You’ve heard it said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:38-44).

That doesn’t sound like a God who would hold anything unforgiveable, does it?   That’s the Amazing Grace we sing about that “saves a wretch like me.”  So, then why does it say in last week’s text (I Sam. 3:14) that the sins of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for forever?  David Stackpole, one of the best students I ever had in preaching class, interpreted that I Samuel text in a way many years ago that made a lot of sense to me then and still does.  David pointed out a couple of key words in I Samuel 3:14 that are easy to read over when our attention is captured by the harshness of the other words in the verse.  He pointed out that the verse doesn’t say their sins cannot be atoned for; it says they cannot be atoned for “by sacrifice or offering.”

We sometimes fall into the trap of imposing our human limitations on God.  Someone once said, “God created us in God’s image, and we return the favor.”  In this case those limitations involve too narrow concepts of not only who and what God can forgive, but how.  The Hebrew theology of Samuel’s day saw sacrificial offerings as the default means of seeking God’s forgiveness.  Ironically, it was Eli’s son’s misuse of sacrificial offerings that got them in hot water.  (See last week’s post for details.)  Eli’s sons corrupted sacrifice as a means of grace with their own selfishness and deceit; so how could something they had no respect for and had broken trust with be a vehicle for finding their way back to God.

But because humans spoil one gift from God doesn’t mean God can’t come up with others.  To put those kind of limits on God would limit God’s power and render God unworthy of our trust.  Jonah tried putting parameters on God’s forgiveness, and we see how well that worked for him.

God’s forgiveness cannot be bought with sacrifice or offering.  But it can be accepted as a freely given gift by those who are humble enough to know we need it.  The Ninevites were forgiven because they repented and admitted their sin (Jonah 4:6-9).  There are multiple scriptures that attest to God’s merciful nature.  The prophet Isaiah (1:18) says, “Though your sins be as scarlet I will make them white as snow.”   Jesus says to his executioners from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).  I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Yes, I know, there are many counter texts that argue for the vengeful God Jonah wished upon his enemies (like we do).  Those texts were written by angry men who wanted their enemies to suffer, but be very careful of that two-edged sword.  Those who live by that unforgivable doctrine will stand under the same judgment.  See living in glass houses and throwing stones?

God’s grace is free.  It can’t be earned by bigger checks in the offering plate or making greater sacrifices of our time and effort.  It is simply poured out in an overflowing cup for those who repent and truly seek it.  What are you waiting for?  There is no need to carry that heavy burden of guilt and anger another day.  God who can show mercy on reluctant, disobedient Jonah and on his dreaded enemies in Nineveh can certainly forgive us too.

Unforgiveable? I Samuel 3:1-20

Are some sins so bad they are beyond forgiveness, even for God?  I sure hope not, but in

I Samuel 3:14 God says, “Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”  That’s the NRSV translation.  Since “expiated” is not a household word, the NIV translation of that verse clarifies things a bit.  The NIV says, “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.”  At least that one leaves off the ominous “forever” of the NRSV.  But don’t celebrate that verbiage too soon because both translations agree in verse 13 that this judgment is forever.   No matter how it’s translated, this passage is bad news.  Eli’s family is guilty of some heinous sin that they can never ever make amends for.

Inquiring minds want to know what the sin of Eli’s family is–in part to be sure that particular big no no is not on our rap sheet, but even more we want to know what this Scripture means about the very nature of the God we worship and want to trust with how we will spend eternity.  Are some acts so evil that they are beyond the limits of an infinite God’s power to forgive?

We can all think of potential candidates for the unforgiveable list: genocide, child abuse, hate crimes, cruelty to animals, and murder might come to mind.  Many of us have painful memories of things done to us or by us that stay with us so long they feel unforgiveable.  But just because we mortals can’t forgive something doesn’t mean God can’t, does it?  “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for” has a ring of finality to it, and with God there’s no higher court of appeal to turn to.

So what is this unforgiveable offense?   I’ll summarize, but the details are found in I Samuel 2:11-17 if you want to read them for yourself.  First, you need to know that Eli and his sons are priests in the temple at Shiloh.  But we are told up front in 2:11 that Eli’s sons are “scoundrels” or “wicked men.”   Their offense is that they violate their sacred priestly duties by taking for themselves the very best portions of meat which are meant to be sacrificed on the altar to God.  Furthermore, they don’t even attempt to hide their wicked ways but boldly and openly demand the very choicest cuts of meat for themselves and even threaten to take those by force if anyone tries to stop them.  Verse 17 concludes this section by saying, “Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.”

Sadly, in contemporary times it is easy to draw parallels here to clergy embezzlement of funds entrusted to them for feeding staving orphans or betraying sacred trust through sexual misconduct.  It is a given that Christians and clergy in particular must not dodge those hard questions and constantly strive to understand and eliminate the suffering those unacceptable behaviors cause.  But a broader question raised by this text is: are those unforgiveable sins?  In our eyes?  In God’s?

And to muddy the waters even further, for those of us who believe in the priesthood of all believers, the question becomes what offerings of the Lord do you and I treat with contempt?  If all of creation is an offering of God to us and we are entrusted by God with all that we are and all we have, not as owners but as stewards, then how does our stewardship compare with that of Eli’s wicked unforgiveable sons?  When we betray God’s trust and desecrate God’s creation with toxic waste, or pollute our bodies with carcinogenic junk food, or disobey God’s laws against killing, or violate the sacred vows we made at our marriage or our baptism, does God then say to us, “I swear to you that your sins shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever?”

The God I know and love does not pass such harsh judgment, and in most sermons and blog posts I would attempt to show why I believe that and bring some resolution to such a difficult  question.  And I will do that in another post, but not yet.

Sometimes we need to wrestle with the questions of our faith so the answers we find can be claimed as our own.   So I’d like to ask you:  What evidence do you find in Scripture and in life that speak to you about the nature of God and God’s relationship to human sin?  If you were explaining this text to a new Christian or someone living in guilt and fear of an angry God, what would you say?   I invite you to explore this for yourself or with friends and if you like share your thoughts by posting a comment.

Let’s dialogue a bit and next week I’ll share my thoughts on what I think the key to understanding this text might be.

HEARING AND BEING THE VOICE OF GOD: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

There’s a famous line in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” where a frustrated prison guard tells the prisoner, Luke, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”  It’s a great line but not quite true.  The problem is not communication; Luke heard the message, he just chose to ignore what the prison guard wanted him to do.  I wonder if we have a similar communication problem with God.   The lectionary texts for January 8th are all about communication, in particular about the power of the voice of God.  Literally from Day One (Gen. 1:1-5) to the Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:4-11) to Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7), God speaks and big things happen.  And the Psalm for this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Psalm 29, speaks directly about the power of “Voice of the Lord” seven times in 11 verses and by implication several other times.

Communication scholars describe Speech-Act theory as the phenomenon by which language has the power to create or change reality.  Anyone who has ever stood before a clergy person or a justice of the peace and said two little words, “I do,” knows very well that their lives are forever changed from that moment forward.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a little ditty most of us learned at an early age.  The problem is it isn’t true.  Words have power to hurt and heal.  Most bullying begins with name calling and naming our political or personal enemies in ways that depersonalize and demonize them is the first step toward justifying abusive and unkind treatment that can ultimately lead to violence and death.

The words we use are a matter of life and death, of light and darkness.  Psalm 29 contains a whole litany of things that the voice of God can do: thunder, break cedars, fire, shake the wilderness, whirl oaks, strip forests and cause floods.  This must be where the insurance companies get their justification for excluding from coverage (read the fine print) natural disasters as “Acts of God.”

I am more interested in what these texts say about the power of God’s voice to transform human lives than I am the cause of natural disasters.  Genesis 1 tells us God spoke light into darkness, and that speech act is far more important symbolically than the on-going debate between creationism and evolution.  The darkness God expelled on day 1 of creation is wonderful, but a more relevant question is “what has God done for us lately?”  There are still far too many black holes of darkness in our world and our hearts today that need the light of God’s powerful voice of truth.

I love this parable by an anonymous author:

A pilgrim asks a wise one about the moment when we can tell darkness from the dawn.  “Is it when I can tell the difference between a sheep and a goat?” she asks.  “No.”

“Then is it when I can tell the difference between a peach and a pomegranate?”

“No,” says the elder. “When you can look into another’s eyes and say, ‘you are my brother, you are sister,’ that is the dawn.   Until then, there is only darkness.”

Both the Mark 1 text and Acts 19 deal with hearing God’s voice through the sacramental act of baptism.  Both texts tell us that John the Baptist preached and performed a baptism of repentance and belief in Jesus as the anointed one who came after John.  Mark doesn’t address the perplexing question of why Jesus needed a baptism of repentance because that’s not the point of that text, and not the full meaning of baptism.  Repentance is a critical first step in transformation, but only a prelude to what an anointed, spirit-led disciple can do.  When Paul asks the Christians in Ephesus “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” they reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul proceeds to fix that problem but in doing so creates a theological dilemma for us.  Paul baptizes those Ephesians a second time.  To this day rebaptism is a controversial issue among Christians of different persuasions, along with what kind of baptism counts, how it’s done, at what age, by whom, etc.

Our different opinions on such matters can sometime be humorous.  One person, when asked if he believed in infant baptism replied, “Believe in it!  I’ve seen it.”   Or when my children were young and we were visiting a Baptist church where my daughter was playing in a piano recital.  After the recital our son went up to explore the chancel area and came back to excitedly report, “Dad, they have a Jacuzzi up there!”

Let’s put the debates about sprinkling or pouring or immersing aside for now and focus on one key point of the Acts text and Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism– what the power of the Holy Spirit does to transform lives.  It’s not the water or how or when it’s applied that matters, it’s the voice of God and whether we hear it.    Jesus’ public ministry begins from the moment he hears the voice of God saying “You are my son….”   The question is have we heard God say, “you are my daughter, you are my son, and with you I am pleased?”

Gospel interpreters sometime wonder if Jesus was the only one who heard God’s voice there beside the Jordan. Given God’s propensity to speak in parables and metaphors and in “a still small voice” (I Kgs 19:12), I’d bet he was.  And so would Fred Craddock, I believe, who loves to say that when it came to his call to ministry it would have been so much easier if God had called him in a voice loud enough that his friends and relatives could have heard it too.

We liberal, sophisticated Christians are often afraid of the emotion associated with Pentecostal Christianity.  But we dare not let that fear make us miss the positive power of the voice, breath, and spirit of God to transform lives.    Jesus is transformed into the Messiah at his baptism and empowered by the voice of God to resist every temptation that Satan can throw at him in the wilderness.  God’s voice enables Jesus to find his voice to speak truth and salvation as God’s messenger.  We don’t know where Jesus was hanging out till he was 30, but we do know that at this pivotal moment Jesus emerges to “shout from the housetops what the Spirit has told him in a whisper” (Matt. 10:27).   By the power of God’s voice he is inspired to go public with his ministry with a passion that enabled him to set his face toward Jerusalem’s cross and never look back, even when his closest friends try their best to persuade him to renounce his calling and take an easier route.

And here’s the important point so don’t miss it– it’s not just Jesus who is transformed and empowered by the voice of God.  In the text from Acts 19 we see how the ordinary folks in Ephesus are also changed into God’s messengers. “The Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (19:7).   Those are loaded terms that may need clarification.  Speaking in tongues for many of us conjures up images of ecstatic nonsense speech that is unfamiliar and incomprehensible.  But what if we interpret tongues to mean that these people were on fire for God and spoke with passion about their faith in ways that people of many different cultures and ethnic groups could understand, as they did on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2)?   Acts 19 also tells us these new baptizees “prophesied,” another term that can have negative connotations if we take prophesying to mean what psychics who advertise on late night TV do.  Biblical prophets are not fortune tellers or crystal ball gazers.  A biblical prophet is simply someone who speaks for God.  They are those who know God’s truth and are emboldened by God’s presence in their lives to proclaim good news to a world starving for some.

The world needs people in every walk of life who have heard the voice of God and are willing not only to talk that talk but to walk God’s walk.  To do that takes incredible courage and faith in a world where people of faith are often aliens in a strange land.  To have the courage of our convictions means that all of us, clergy and laity alike are called to witness to our faith by word and action, even when we know the dangers and risks involved in speaking an uncomfortable truth – in love.  The risks of that kind of truth are exemplified quite simply in the fact that the Greek word for “witness” is also the word for “martyr.”

All baptized Christians are called to be witnesses and prophets for God, and the enormity of that calling means we all need to be anointed by God’s spirit.  We cannot hope to fulfill the ministry we are baptized into without the power of God’s spirit to guide and direct us.  God knows we all need a baptism of repentance, but we also need the power of the Holy Spirit to move us from repentance and forgiveness to become proactive messengers who dare to become the voice of God that transforms lives and the world.